BACKGROUND: Women in sub-Saharan Africa are vulnerable to acquiring HIV infection and reproductive tract infections. Bacterial vaginosis (BV), a disruption of the vaginal microbiota, has been shown to be strongly associated with HIV infection. Risk factors related to potentially protective or harmful microbiota species are not known.
METHODS: We present cross-sectional quantitative polymerase chain reaction data of the Lactobacillus genus, five Lactobacillus species, and three BV-related bacteria (Gardnerella vaginalis, Atopobium vaginae, and Prevotella bivia) together with Escherichia coli and Candida albicans in 426 African women across different groups at risk for HIV. We selected a reference group of adult HIV-negative women at average risk for HIV acquisition and compared species variations in subgroups of adolescents, HIV-negative pregnant women, women engaging in traditional vaginal practices, sex workers and a group of HIV-positive women on combination antiretroviral therapy. We explored the associations between presence and quantity of the bacteria with BV by Nugent score, in relation to several factors of known or theoretical importance.
RESULTS: The presence of species across Kenyan, South African and Rwandan women was remarkably similar and few differences were seen between the two groups of reference women in Kenya and South Africa. The Rwandan sex workers and HIV-positive women had the highest G. vaginalis presence (p = 0.006). Pregnant women had a higher Lactobacillus genus mean log (7.01 genome equivalents (geq)/ml) compared to the reference women (6.08 geq/ml). L. vaginalis (43%) was second to L. iners (81.9%) highly present in women with a normal Nugent score. Recent sexual exposure negatively affected the presence of L. crispatus (<0.001), L. vaginalis (p = 0.001), and Lactobacillus genus (p < 0.001). Having more than one sexual partner in the last three months was associated with an increased prevalence of G. vaginalis (p = 0.044) and L. iners (p = 0.001).
CONCLUSIONS: Although the composition of species across the studied African countries was similar, the presence of protective species i.e. L. crispatus and L. vaginalis in women with a normal Nugent score appeared lower compared to non-African studies. Furthermore, Lactobacillus species were negatively affected by sexual behavioural. Strategies to support protective Lactobacillus species are urgently needed.
TRIAL REGISTRATION: The study is registered at the Trial Registration at the National Health Research Ethics Council South Africa with the number DOH2709103223.